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Dylan Ferguson, director of McLean County Area EMS, prepares a dose of naloxone (Narcan) administered as a nasal spray. EMS providers are administering more Narcan this year to patients experiencing an opioid overdose.

DAVID PROEBER, HERALD & REVIEW NEWS SERVICE

DECATUR — It's hard to overestimate the size of the illegal drug problem confronting law enforcement in Central Illinois.

Macon County State's Attorney Jay Scott sums it up this way: “We're going through an epidemic right now. We're doing the best we can, but where it's going to end up, I don't know.”

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Police and prosecutors in neighboring counties such as DeWitt, Piatt and McLean say much the same thing. Heroin use is rampant and close behind that is the illegal consumption of prescription drugs, with many addicts turning to heroin as an alternative when they can no longer get prescription narcotics.

Along the way there are overdoses and overdose deaths and all the misery that flows from drug abuse. “Put it this way, we used to see heroin every now and then, and now we're seeing heroin on a weekly basis,” Scott said of his case load.

The state's attorney's approach is to target suppliers while trying to get help for addicts whenever possible.

“We take a hard line on dealers because they're just profiting off other people's misery,” he said. “And while there is a common misconception that we lock up drug users, we actually try everything possible not to do that. And with first time offenders, we divert them into treatment programs.”

Legal alternatives such as drug courts provide care and treatment for addicts and give them a chance to turn their lives around while keeping their liberty.

The problem, however, is coping with demand.

“We went through a couple of stretches in the last two years where our drug court was at capacity; we couldn't fit any more people in it,” Scott said. “And that is unfortunate.”

One big plus in Macon County is the close relationship between the Macon County Sheriff's Office and the Howard G. Buffett Foundation. Working with Sheriff Thomas Schneider, philanthropist Howard Buffett provided more than $1 million in grant funding to pay for the hiring of a drug intervention officer and underwrite the cost of accessing drug treatment programs.

Schneider said the specially trained officer intervenes in drug cases to assist addicts and guide them into treatment. If the addict has the resources to pay for treatment, it's handled that way. If not, the foundation funds kick in to pick up the treatment bill.

The drug intervention officer and treatment funding have been in operation for more than a year, and Schneider said he knows of “at least a dozen” people who have been helped.

“We are one of the very few sheriff's offices that can offer a program like this,” Schneider said. He agrees with Scott's philosophy of targeting the dealers and said the best place for them is “behind bars.” But he said his office has always taken a more sympathetic approach, when it can, to people whose only sin is addiction.

“Our officers have stayed with people overnight inside the lobby area of our building until there was a treatment facility open the next morning,” Schneider said. “We look at every opportunity to let people know that we are here to help, not hurt.”

As for the drugs people are choosing to check themselves out of reality, the sheriff agreed that opioids, especially heroin, are way up there.

“It's become very prevalent within our community, and so that is what we see a lot of,” he said.

It's the same sad story in DeWitt County, where Jered Shofner is sheriff. 

"Heroin is definitely our No. 1 public safety threat," said Shofner, whose department is one of six agencies that make up the Illinois State Police Task Force 6 narcotics unit. Task Force 6 uses resources from the DeWitt, Piatt and McLean County sheriff's offices and the Illinois State University and Clinton police departments.

A majority of 19 state drug task forces surveyed by the Illinois Criminal Justice Authority listed heroin as the most serious drug in their communities.

Immediately behind heroin as the major source of crime and health concerns for Illinois police is the spread of illegal prescription drugs, according to the survey released last year.

Public education about the dangers of prescription painkillers that are a known path to heroin for many people is key to reducing the number of addicts, McLean County Sheriff Jon Sandage said.

"This is not a problem we can arrest our way out of," said Sandage, characterizing opioids, which include heroin and prescription drugs such as oxycodone and hydrocodone, as "a problem law enforcement has never seen the likes of before."

For as little as $5, an addict can buy enough heroin for a single high.

Area law enforcement officials agree even small amounts of heroin circulating in a community can produce devastating consequences.

"We see the human toll of addiction in small communities. We're not a 'source city' for heroin dealers, but we end up seeing people who've just purchased the drug and used. As soon as they buy that small quantity, they are using it," Shofner said.

It's also common for police to find addicts as they are passing through on their way home from a drug transaction.

Shofner said his deputies recently stopped a woman en route to Decatur with her young child, and heroin, in the car. The child was placed in the custody of child welfare workers after the woman was arrested.

In Bloomington, cocaine remains the most commonly possessed illegal drug, Police Chief Brendan Heffner said. Officers have made just one drug buy involving heroin this year, he said.

"We find more people in possession of other people's pills," Heffner said.

Meanwhile, the number of prescription drug cases filed in McLean County has grown dramatically in the past several years, McLean County Assistant State's Attorney Jeff Horve said.

"Prescription drugs have exploded," he said, adding the single monthly pill case filed five years ago is now 10 to 15 cases.

Heroin traffickers differ from their marijuana counterparts, said Horve, in that marijuana dealers often use the drug themselves.

But those who sell heroin "are pure dealers, and the users are pure addicts," he said.

The heroin currently on the market is more powerful and lethal than what was found on the street in previous decades, authorities caution.

The practice of cutting the drug with fentanyl, a powerful synthetic opioid, and other potent substances has added to the threat of overdose and death, McLean County Coroner Kathy Davis said.

Three of the 16 opioid-related deaths recorded in McLean County in 2016 involved fentanyl. Heroin was listed as the primary cause in four deaths and combined drug intoxication accounted for another six. Three deaths were attributed to hydrocodone and oxymorphone, according to coroner's data.

Davis, also a nurse practitioner, shared her research into drug trends recently with an audience of health professionals at Heartland Community College. Speaking on a panel that included Sandage and several experts on the effects of drug abuse, Davis dispelled several myths people may have about opioids.

"Rarely do I see needle marks. They're snorting it," Davis said. When the coroner's staff arrives at some death scenes, "the needle is still in their arm," she said.

The widely held notion that a heroin user is a junkie who lacks any promise for the future no longer holds true, Davis said. Young and athletic, one McLean County overdose victim seemed to have everything going for him, including the support of an upper-income family, Davis said in an example of an overdose case her office handled.

"It's not what you think it is," Davis said of the opioid epidemic.

Follow Edith Brady-Lunny on Twitter: @pg_blunny

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